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Austin rejects bond for urban rail by wide margin

Wednesday, November 5, 2014 by Austin Monitor

Despite the backing of Mayor Lee Leffingwell and many of the city’s power brokers, Austin’s $1 billion transportation bond proposal, Proposition 1, went down to defeat Tuesday night. Opponents say it was the wrong plan in the wrong place, but those pushing for the mass transit system say it might have been Austin’s last chance at rail for a decade or more.

It was a crushing defeat for Austin’s only proposition on the ballot, which was voted down by about a 14 percent margin.

Citizens Against Rail Taxes founder Jim Skaggs told the Austin Monitor that he was elated.

“I think it’s a win, win, win. It’s a win for the taxpayers, it’s a win for transportation, and it’s a win for a system of transparency,” said Skaggs. “This entire plan was put together without any transparency, and what we need is a total mobility plan which is shared by the community and that is the only way to address the problems we have.”

He continued: “This rail was a huge cost for all taxpayers, the biggest taxpayer increase in history, on a community already burdened by the fastest growing tax increases of any major city in the nation … It was a huge portion of our funds for a minuscule portion of our needs. More than anything else, this thing proves that we need cost effective solutions for mobility, and those cost effective solutions have to address mobility for everybody, not for a minuscule few paid for and subsidized by all the rest.”

Let’s Go Austin campaign manager Lynda Rife was not elated.

“We’re disappointed. We worked really hard. We thought we had a good balance of roads and rail on the ballot. We thought we picked a route that would bring in the federal dollars, but the voters said, ‘No’,” said Rife.

Skaggs and Rife also had different hopes for the future, though both hoped to see Austin’s traffic problems addressed.

Skaggs said he’d like to see other, more transparent, transportation options considered by city planners in the future.

“I’d like to see two things,” said Skaggs “One, recognize that 99 percent of every trip is made on the roadways, be it private or public transit or shared or emergency or school or government vehicles, it’s on roads. And we need to fix our road system to accommodate that transportation. Second, we need to upgrade our transit system to support those people who need transit in their daily lives and have no alternative. And we need to stop trying to get people out of their cars to ride trains and other transit modes which are not viable for the 99.5 percent of the travelers.”

When asked whether she had plans for the future, Rife said, “110 people will move here tomorrow, and the next day and the next day. I’m hoping that someone is thinking about some kind of solutions.”

Rife hoped that transportation issues can be fixed, saying, “I think it’s choking our city, it’s a nightmare, and I’m worried about Austin. I’m hoping that the people who said that this wasn’t the right plan find a plan that they can support and we can all support.”

The pitch for an urban rail line was hotly debated on a number of fronts. Pro-rail supporters pointed to congestion and economic viability as reasons to support the line. They further argued that the passage of $600 million in city bond funds would leverage a matching $600 million from the federal government for the project. And they noted that a $400 million promise — seen in some quarters as a blatant pitch for support from the road warrior faction of the mobility infrastructure debate — attached to the rail bonds would ensure that necessary road work wouldn’t be left behind.

To make their case, supporters formed a political action committee, Let’s Go Austin, to fund outreach. As of that organization’s eight-day-out report, it had spent roughly $700,000. The money funded television ads, direct mail efforts and more.

Opponents of the project argued from two main camps: One, that the route and data behind the route selection were flawed, and another that fought the idea based on the prospective 6 cent (per $100 of assessed property valuation) tax increase.

Route opponents, loosely clumped as the Our Rail initiative, argued that the selected route — one that would  extend from Highland Mall south through the University of Texas campus and downtown, across Lady Bird Lake and then east out East Riverside Drive — was not the right choice. They argued for a track that would instead run along the Lamar-Guadelupe corridor.

Meanwhile, advocates with the group AURA pushed hard against data delivered by city consultants as the project evaluation proceedings continued. Both Our Rail and AURA remained extremely vocal about their various stances via social media and at city meetings called to discuss the project.

Citizens Against Rail Taxes, or CART, followed more traditional lines in arguing that the route would be too expensive for taxpayers and relatively ineffective.

Three groups spent money arguing against the rail bond: As of the eight-day-out reports, CART had raised more than $114,000 and spent nearly $272,000. DeRail Austin raised $12,000 for that period and had spent $53,034. Our Rail spent $4,806.

This year’s result is the third time since 2000 that Austin Council members have gone to the polls for a vote on a rail project. The 2000 vote — on a fairly comprehensive rail system — came up just short. Then, in 2004, voters approved funds to construct the Capital MetroRail Red Line.

This story was written by Mike Kanin and Beth Cortez-Neavel

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